Sunday, 22 February 2009

On being Slow

It's occurred to me, given some of my recent posts, that you must think I spend my entire life stuffed halfway down a soil pipe. I admit there is some truth in this. It feels as though we've been rebuilding our downstairs loo now for most of my adult life, and although progress is being made and rumour has it that we may well finish it this year, it's been a painfully slow and tedious job, for all sorts of (mainly) good reasons. 

Not least of which is that at the same time, I'm deeply embroiled in the final details of sourcing and spec-ing for The Work to our guest accommodation. Because yes, I can at last report that artisans have been found, devis have been signed, deposits have been paid; work will be starting in earnest in May, and is anticipated to take 122.5 days (yes, really) - with a break for les grandes vacances, naturally. After more than a year, with not a few false starts along the way, I can barely believe it myself. In the end, and most importantly when we were ready - practically, and psychologically - for it to happen, the process of finding the right person to mastermind the job proved to be a much simpler one than we expected; a relationship was made straight away and my gut instinct just said yes.  

We ourselves are taking on a fair amount of the work. Partly because we want to; partly because we can; and partly, frankly, because we need to to keep within budget. So, for example, amongst numerous other things, John's doing all of the outside work: creating terraces, building paths and steps and all the rest; I'm stripping and sanding and refinishing three floors and four staircases, putting in a new loo (yes, again!), upgrading a shower room with new plumbing and fittings, and tiling nearly 200 square metres of wall and floor; and together we'll be fitting over 100 metres of new skirting board and other woodwork, and putting around 120 litres of paint and limewash on the walls. 

I've become umbilically attached to my project file; even though I may not always know what day it is, I can spout for hours about the precise differences between this shower mixer and that one, or about the r values of different kinds of insulating materials, or about the drying times of hemp plaster. I suspect I'm perhaps not the world's most scintillating company just now, though you'd have to ask other people about that one.

The biggest challenge of all is going to be managing, and doing, all of this without losing the sense of Slow. We're going to be working eight or nine hours a day, probably to the point of physical exhaustion, over six days a week, for at least the next ten months. So how on earth, as a friend said to me recently, can that be Slow? Surely it's an oxymoron?

I don't think it is. Slow, as I understand it, is not literal. It has nothing to do with clock time, or with doing everything at a snail's pace. Rather, it's about doing things at the Right pace - right in the Buddhist sense, that is. It's as much about process as about product - valuing the journey, as well as the destination; being present in it, as well as being able to take time to stand outside and look back in. Put simply, if we're not going to engage with and have fun with the process of doing this work; if we're doing what we're doing just to save money; if we're going to plough through it with hidden resentment just wishing it were finished ... well then there would be no point.

But there's more. Hard to define, beyond a kind of know-it-when-you-see-it 'aha!' moment, but it's something to do with a sense of truthfulness, of authenticity: to ourselves, for sure, to but also to this house, to the land around it, to its history and its pays; to the materials we're using, the skills that we're bringing to the work and those that we're learning from it; to quality, to creativity and to simplicity; to relationship: with the environment, with each other and with those we're working alongside; and not least, to the process itself.

I think we have a choice. We can either look on the next year or so as sheer bloody hard graft, go onto auto-pilot, get everything done as quickly and as unthinkingly as possible, and simply look forward to the day it's over; or we can Slow right down, become a part of the process itself, and live it, with mindfulness - the good, the bad and the plain old indifferent, all lived in the moment, each moment.

A man walking across a field encountered 
a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. 
Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a 
wild vine and swung himself over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above. 
Terrified, the man looked down to where, 
far below, another tiger had come, 
waiting to eat him. 
Two mice, one white and one black, 
little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. 
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.
Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked 
the strawberry with the other. 
How sweet it tasted!

Zen parable.

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